Medical Misdiagnoses More Common Than Drug Errors and Wrong-Site Surgery: A Little Humility Goes a Long Way

We are often led to believe that medical misdiagnoses are rare, and that drug errors and wrong-site surgery are more common.  A recent article in the Washington Post  debunks this belief.  The article discusses the case of a physician, Itzhak Brook, whose throat cancer was misdiagnosed – by very good specialists – as acid reflux.  Who made the correct diagnosis?  A resident, not the specialists.   So much for ceding our health completely to specialists.   The doctor lived, but now speaks in a whisper.

Another sobering example from the article:  Karen Holliman was put through an odyssey of more than 50 medical visits with a variety of doctors, who told her that her fatigue and back pain were caused by fibromyalgia or psychiatric problems, when she actually had developed metastatic breast cancer.  Of course, the lawyers for the involved hospital denied any liability.  Karen is terminally ill.  She is 52 years old.

Some of the more general findings mentioned in the article include these:

  • 10-20% of medical cases involve medical misdiagnoses
  • 28% of medical errors reported anonymously by doctors were life-threatening, according to a 2009 study
  • 40,500 deaths each year are related to ICU misdiagnoses
  • the vast majority of misdiagnoses do not result in any legal action
  • overconfidence by physicians contributes to misdiagnoses

There is likely no one easy answer for these troubling findings, but a couple of things may help.  First, doctors should not be afraid of sending patients for second opinions.  Also, maybe more doctors can practice a little humility and take the time to do correct differential diagnoses, spend a little time with their patients talking with them and carefully observing them.  Maybe a little old-fashioned attention to the people who trust them with their health will go a long way toward preventing these types of outcomes.  Medical technology is great, but spending time with patients may be the best medicine of all.